12 top tips to a strong school membership drive this fall

The 2009-10 school year promises to be a bleak one on the financial front, which presents a powerful challenge to parent groups as they organize their fundraising drive.

Schools everywhere - and no more so than here in California - will have to live with smaller budgets, larger class sizes and fewer supplies. The annual pledge drive or membership drive certainly represents your parent group’s best opportunity to help absorb some of the cuts.

I’ve helped with pledge drives at my children’s elementary and middle schools for six years. The year before I took over the drive, the elementary school had brought in about $7,000 in pledges. By the time I departed, we were bringing in about $50,000. This was a group effort by a handful of parents who wanted more for the school. And I’m happy to say the upward climb continued after I was gone.

Part of the increase was due to an increase in enrollment. But the vast majority was due to the parent group trying new ideas, chief among them asking for a lot more per child than we had in the past and offering incentives. And we coordinated our message with other schools in the community for a more united front.

Here are my 12 top tips for a successful fall fundraising drive.

1. Build around a theme. People want to know how their donation will be used.

Two years ago, for example, our middle school relocated to a new campus. We built our theme around being “on the move.” We were a bit worried that parents would look at the beautiful locale and conclude there were no need to donate.

We compared the relocation to a family moving into a new home. We could all relate to the unexpected costs that go with moving into a new place. We had a good year.

2. It’s all about the economy. People make tough choices during tough times. We do without non-essentials. Our children’s education is an essential. There is no more powerful message than that.

3. Offer testimonials. One year, our parent group president asked a veteran teacher at the school to compare the support he was receiving from the school in the way of supplies, textbooks and other vital materials with his earliest years as a teacher.

His comments, shared during a packed house during back to school night, resulted in a startling response from parents. They knew the situation was bad, but they had no idea just how much things had changed.

We worked the teacher’s comments into our fundraising brochure and parent newsletter and had a record-setting pledge drive.

You can also include short quotes from the principal or a few teachers on the difference parent financial support can make.

4. Presentation counts. If you are not strong with words or visuals, find parents who are. I teamed up with a dad at the elementary and middle school who was experienced at marketing and graphic presentation. I wrote the words and he added his marketing know how and flair for presentation.

On the word front, be brief. Bullet points and short lists will beat out long blocks of type every time.

5. Aim high. Set a goal for your drive. Include that goal in all your presentations. And update progress regularly in email blasts, newsletters, your school Web site or signs around school.

6. Aim high with your contribution levels, too. Several years ago (at the onset of several bad budget cycles), all the schools in our community joined forces for our fall drives. We decided to ask parents to donate $180 per child or “just” $1 a day for each day of school. Lesser amounts were, of course, gladly accepted. But the amount of the appeal stuck. All the schools continue to ask for the same amount or have upped the amount slightly.

I would encourage you to not lower your top-dollar amount because of the down economy. Over the years, I’ve found that most of the families who donate, give at the highest level.

7. Tax advantages. I know this seems obvious, but believe it or not our parent group went years without pointing out that it was a recognozed non-profit and therefore donations were deductible. Build this information into your written and verbal appeals and your thank you notes.

8. Ask once, ask again and then ask again. Parents are busy. Even the most dedicated will forget to send in a donation. Send home an appeal at the start of the school year and at least two other times. This can be via snail mail, email or the backpack express.

Make presentations during school registration and back to school night. Any other gatherings at the school are great opportunities to reach out. Be persistent. And don’t forget to ask parents to look into whether their employees offer matching donations.

I have not tried this personally, but one high school here in San Diego organized a telethon and had parent group board members call families that had not yet made a donation. The response was excellent.

9. Let families pay with credit cards. This will cost your group some money in credit card fees. But I have found that people who pay with credit cards tend to give more, a lot more. You will more than make up for the monthly credit card fees.

10. Offer an incentive. At our elementary school, we offered a sliding scale of incentives. The more you gave, the more you got. Top donors, for example, would receive a free yearbook or totebag or school T-shirt.

We also included coupons for top donors to send in during other fundraisers such as the gift-wrap drive which said something like “I’m opting out of this fundraiser because I gave at the highest level durning the pledge.”

To be real honest, many of the people who donated during the pledge drive also donated during gift-wrap drives and the spring jog-a-thon. But I think they liked the idea of knowing they didn’t have to feel pressured to give later in the school year.

At the middle school last year, my pledge co-chair and I borrowed an idea from other schools and offered a drawing for a $200 gift card for all parents who donated during the drive.

11. Thank donors publicly. Set aside an issue of your newsletter to publish a list of families who have donated to the cause.

12. Send thank yous! Again, this may seem obvious, but there are schools that don’t bother acknowledging donations.

I have asked for email addresses and sent the vast majority of my thanks you notes electronically, which saved time and postage. In addition to your thank you message, include your organization’s tax identification number and encourage the families to save the acknowledgement for tax purposes. Be sure to send them home well before tax season.

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